Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Week in Alcohol

Aged 5 months in the Alderson Federal Woman’s Prison Martha Stewart has announced a partnership with E&J Gallo Wines to release 15,000 cases of ‘Martha Stewart Vintage’ wines. There will be three varieties (Cab, Merlot and Chardonnay) and all will be sourced in Sonoma County, California

So two drinks a day helps you better remember to do your monthly self-examinations A recently-published study claims that three or more drinks a day increases the risk of breast cancer for women by 30%. An unrelated study published at virtually the same time claims that moderate drinking actually enhances memory. ("People often drink to 'drown sorrows,'" one of the study’s authors says. "Our results suggest that this could actually paradoxically promote traumatic memories and lead to further drinking, contributing to the development of alcoholism." )

Guess I won’t stop drinking, then A study released by the Center for Addiction and Mental Health revealed that for people who quit drinking, it took two decades for their risk of developing cancer of the larynx, esophagus, and oral cavity to fall to the level of those who had never started drinking

Meanwhile, for hangover sufferers, science shows that the cure really is worse than disease
The journal Chemical Research in Toxicology published a study linking the combination of Red Bull (or other heavily-caffeinated energy drinks) and Tylenol to liver damage

Don’t drink and proselytize A survey published by the evangelical Christian firm Lifeway Research claimed that while the majority of lay Protestants believe consuming alcohol to be biblically sanctioned, three quarters of senior Southern Baptist pastors surveyed believed that drinking made evangelism less effective. (90% of Protestant clergy surveyed believed that “a Christian drinking alcohol could cause other believers to stumble or be confused.”)

Friday, September 21, 2007

RSVP Tasting: Stuff the boss brought back from his holiday abroad

Wine Guado Al Tasso Il Bruciato 2004
From DOC Bolgheri, Italy
Anticipated Price $30.00 - $35.00
This Tuscan DOC makes reds which blend either Cab, Merlot and Syrah; or Cab, Merlot and Sangiovese, depending on whom we believe---our Fearless Leader, or Hugh Johnson. The palate seems to favor the latter, combining the concentrated raspberry fruit of a Sangiovese with the supple tannins of the Bordeaux varieties. Big, intense nose bops you with more of a Australian/Chilean fist than traditional Italian; oak is obvious but seamlessly integrated. A lingering finish keeps tasters lingering over their glasses; nobody accuses the boss of being self-serving when he pronounces the result “outstanding”.

Wine Bodegas Nazares Tempranillo 2005
From Spain
Anticipated Price $10.00-12.00
Almost a palate-cleanser in comparison to the wine above: Nothing huge in the nose but lots of cheerful spice-and-strawberry on the palate; a mature stylist thinking back on younger days. Spain seems to bridge the gap among old-world and international-style fans at these tastings, tending towards lively wines that don't carry the aggressive dopeyness of so many new-world steroid-bombs. The style rubs off even on the lower-priced quaffers like this one, which had the budget-minded among us scribbling down its name---and price.

Wine Fattoria Di Vetrice Chianti Rufina Riserva 1990
From Italy
Anticipated Price $50.00-55.00
You read that vintage right: 1990---a good year in Tuscany, but a rare one to see on a label today at this price. Quality turns out to be up there as well; this is outstanding Chianti without the warts; medium-bodied with acid nicely in balance, smoothly textured with silky, mature tannins providing a sweet kick in the finish. Flavor-spotters were ripping page after page out of their enological lexicons, leaning particularly on things like dry earth, hay and cherry. For people with the bucks who like their maturity right away.

Wine Chateau Fuisse Saint Veran 2004
From Burgundy, France
Anticipated Price $26.00-30.00
The boss's explanation of the distinctions between a St. Veran and a Pouilly-Fuisse (and how a top producer of the latter came in this case to be bottling some of the former) proved as impenetrable as an account of the various editions of the Bruckner symphonies, and so will not be reproduced here. The wine itself was a pale yellow and had concentrated notes of citrus (the adventurous cited “lemon and crushed grapefruit”) and grass (“hay” to the erudite) on the nose; nice minerality and fully ripe fruit flavors on the palate with balanced acid on the finish. The boss: “Classic, understated white Burgundy”. Perhaps fearing another dissertation, nobody argues.

Wine Araldica Piemontese Cortese 2006
From Italy
Anticipated Price $14.00-16.00
This wine is made from the same grapes as Gavi, a subtle Piedmont white. Introducing it, the lead taster said “It's not Gavi, but it's not thirty bucks, either”. With this set of atrophied expectations (especially to those among the group for whom Gavi was as familiar as the terrain of Moomin Valley) tasters noted a medium-bodied wine with hints of a variety of things on the nose and palate: citrus, lemon, Granny Smith (not Spartan) apples, mineral notes and grapefruit. Acidity was zippy and oysters made a fine accompaniment---at least until the philosophical taster noted that so far, the group has in its six months of existence failed to find a white wine that doesn't go brilliantly with oysters.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Week in Alcohol

We were wondering what Courtney Love was up to these days Owen Wilson, recently released from hospital after a cry-for-help style suicide attempt, has hired a $750-a-day "sober companion" to keep him on the straight-and-narrow

Now seeking employment as a private consultant to Owen Wilson Ewen McLeod, the former director of a New Zealand alcohol rehabilitation center, was jailed for 5 months after committing three drunk-driving offenses in just over a week – two of them on one day. He had previously been jailed for breach of bankruptcy laws after his rehab clinic failed, leaving debts of $300,000.

And absolutely no more than 20 beers apiece---I'm firm on that A report on teenage drinking commissioned by Health Canada quotes one teenager's father who buys beer for his son's basement drinking parties. "I put some rules in place, though. I tell them no more than 15 people and I'm absolutely in the house."

But we're allowing alcohol at the shark-wrestling tank Authorities have forbidden the organizers of an Irish St Patrick's Day skydiving event from selling liquor

Good thing they didn't call it "the Toronto Maple Leafs"
The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario forbid the owners of the Prohibition Gastropub and Oyster Bar from naming their bar the Booze Emporium. "The licensing officer found that the name implied promoting the immoderate consumption of liquor," according to a Commission representative

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

RSVP Tasting: L'Affaire petit-dejeuner du chien, Deuxiem Partie

Wine Painter Bridge California Zinfandel 2005
From California
Price $13.99 (BC Liquor Stores)
Alcohol Content 13.0%
Sometimes, you can see why California winemakers rebel against the idea of Zinfandel being declared the state grape: This is a bubblegum wine that would be dismissed as an embarrassment by the serious-minded Cabernet grower---“what, you're going to drink it with a milkshake dinner, maybe?” Plenty of cherry kool-aid nose and a candy-floss palate (as opposed to the serious candy you get with some of the better California Pinots) almost makes you want to blow bubbles; but a herbaceous finish suggests that you could leave this in the cupboard for another year or two. Kid stuff, but then, in Sam Peckenpah's The Wild Bunch a sage observes that “we all wish to become a child again---even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst of us most of all.”

Wine Dr. Zensen Riesling Spatlese 2005
From Germany
Price $17.01 (MLCC, Manitoba)
Alcohol Content 9.0%
Immediately attractive: Classic, sweet Riesling nose; hints of apple on the palate; sweet without being cloying to start with. But subsequent sips lead you to backpedal: should this have more acid? Should this have been made as a Kabinett? Actually, the acid balance is OK; the body just isn't up to the sweetness---perhaps another casualty of the curious German wine-law where the only thing that matters to a wine's grade is sugar. This example is the equivalent of a redheaded wine bleaching its hair blonde---is it true all Spatleses have more fun? Not this time.

Wine Pierre Sparr Pinot Noir Reserve 2005
From Alsace, France
Price $18.95 (LCBO, Ontario)
Alcohol Content 13.5%
Enigmatic but emphatic nose tests the crowd's spot-the-flavor skills, (and more tellingly, individuals' powers of suggestion), with the most persuasive personalities arm-twisting a judgment of “notes of dark chocolate”. Otherwise, the wine manages to come off as subtle and unique---both recognizably Pinot and recognizably Alsace. Perhaps a bit pricey, although it should be remembered that the true Pinot-fancier generally has a pretty masochistic sense of relative value, and is willing to pay twice as much for a wine that may well prove only half as good. On the other hand, when asked why he kept returning to this particular bottle when there were 6 other wines on the table and work still to be done, the group's philosophical type replied after a profundity-inducing pause, “because I like it.”

Wine Chateau Grossombre 2003
From Bordeaux AC, France
Price $17.95 (LCBO, Ontario)
Alcohol Content 12.5%
A Lurton wine with 67% Cabernet and 33% Merlot which has had one year in oak. Not surprisingly, it tastes like a Cab-driven Bordeaux, with the tannins still a bit green on the finish. A few alarmed tasters noticed the middle dropping out of it, although a couple of more persistent souls who put their glasses aside a few minutes found on returning that it had developed a meaty nose and a stable profile all the way through. On the whole, pleasant, but at close to $20, no big deal. At $14.- it would be a steal.

Wine Chateau Carabon 2003
From Bordeaux AC, France
Price $22.95 (LCBO, Ontario)
Alcohol Content 14.0%
For some, a 14% alcohol content in a Bordeaux that's also 90% Merlot is a warning flag: either some Aussie winemaker has been brought in as a consultant, or yet another traditionalist has caved in to the International Style. The wine displays a potent Bordeaux nose and rich fruit kept from flabbiness by the presence of lots of tannin---which unsurprisingly leads to a lingering finish. Debate thereafter centered on: Is the alcohol a tiny bit too present? Would it be a bigger winner at 13%? Is it too ripe and too fat? Too Parkerish? Would a bit more Cabernet have firmed things up a little? The consensus that emerged was that it was a largely successful compromise between a new and old-world style. In the words of an up-till-then cranky taster: “A winner.”

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Are they worth it? Part 3: Beppi Crosariol's “Wine Butler” in the Globe and Mail

If, like me, you find the Globe and Mail too depressing a read to buy the newsprint edition, yet you still start your day with the online version, you may have caught a glimpse of a new feature currently being promoted in the left-hand sidebar to the front page. It's called the 'Wine Butler', and it's being pushed as a sort of consumer treasury of Globe wine writer Beppi Crosariol's collected sniffs and gulps from years past, gathered together in a searchable database. As such, it represents the Globe's first tentative foray into the kind of online data treasury currently occupied by heavy enological hitters like Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker, both of whom have pay sites promising unlimited access to their private notes to give you a leg up on fellow wine-fanciers competing for the good stuff at your local wine retailer. Unfortunately, if early shakedown runs are anything to go by, it's pretty clear that if this wine butler actually was a flesh and blood creature at your service, you'd have handed him his walking papers by now.

I suppose we could have seen it coming: such a project must be really attractive to a critic with ten years worth of tasting notes that have been publicly viewed just once, and have since faded from view like the tannins in a big Aussie Cabernet. Here's a chance for the man to turn his knowledge into searchable cyber-wisdom; his life-experience into a database. How could anyone resist?

The trouble is, as a useful consumer tool the Wine Butler's a bust; worse yet, as a means of putting Crosariol's wine-writing on display (a sort of 'Beppi's Greatest Hits') it's so flawed as to prove a mere annoyance to anybody seeking either a glimpse of his personality or a whiff of his intelligence. As a database, it doesn't give you the information you want; and as a sampler of wine writing, it's an exercise in frustration to browse.

Even the most cursory search---either by wine type or by wine name---reveals that the database is woefully short on useful data. To take just one example, Wine Butler lists no Bordeaux between $15 and $25, which is preposterous: Even in B.C. Liquor Stores there are a dozen examples available; at the LCBO even more. Or, a search for a Burgundy priced between $15 and $25 missed several in current release, and instead listed two which were not available any more---one of which was incorrectly priced to boot. And when you do squeeze out a hit searching by type, as often as not you are steered to an older review of a vintage that was never available except at a small circle of LCBO Vintages stores for two days in 2005.

As a guide to wines that actually are out there, Wine Butler falls down even more badly. As a thought experiment, I tried typing in the names of all the bottles in the last couple of cases I hauled home from the LCBO, with nary a hit. (The no-shows included: Domaine de la Solitude; Tommasi anything; Clos du Bois anything; Mouton anything; Kenwood Pinot Noir; Domaine Monoertuis; Chateau Gaillat; Chanson Bourgogne; Chateau Saint Auriol Corbieres; Marchand Fixin; Drouhin Morey St Denis; and Chateau du Pavillon. As far as I know, they're all still out there on LCBO shelves.)

As well, Wine Butler offers up promises to the nose that just aren't followed up on the palate; what on the surface appear to be user-friendly and useful little touches but turn out empty---like the little “match with food” toggle, which requires even more raw data to be effective. (Find me the best $25 Bordeaux to go with a chicken pie? Why not something genuinely useful, like overcooked squash?)

All in all, at this stage of its evolution, Wine Butler is pretty much a corked bottle: There is potential for a site like this---it's always useful to have access to any accumulated wisdom; but the potential it holds out to the reader is as a library. The Globe is courting horselaughs by parading it in front of the public as a tool.

Monday, September 3, 2007

RSVP Tasting: A relief expedition from the LCBO finally arrives in town

Wine Chateau de Corneilla “Cuvee Prestige” Cotes de Roussillon 2004
From Pyrenees, France
Price $15.95 (LCBO, Ontario)
Alcohol Content 13.5%
Earthy nose with notes of game; perhaps a tiny hint of the ocean (or at least Lake Superior) had the metaphor fans abuzz: leaves, forest floor, that kind of stuff; later evolving to truffles, plums, dates, mature tree-fruit and mature trees themselves. A mix of 30% each of Mourvedre, Syrah, and old-vines Carignan with a pinch of Grenache tastes ancient and earthy---an old, off-color joke you still love. Very dry---not dried-out, but naturally austere and purely expressed---this was consumed with lamb, and made it even more fabulous: Young and tender, old and gamy all at once. (The flavor that dare not speak its name.)

Wine Chateau Constantin-Chevalier Cotes de Luberon 2003
From Provence, France
Price $21.95 (LCBO, Ontario)
Alcohol Content 14.0%
When your back label is a lot bigger than your front, we've got trouble. Mealy-mouthed rear-label prose by Peter Mayle (author of A Year in Provence) very gingerly points out the possible health benefits of red wine and invites you to consume this bottle with your doctor “in good conscience”. Not with your friends, mind you: This has no spectacular nose; big generic fruit; is big and anonymous and doesn't evolve through the bottle---OK with food, but no more than that. Same grapes as the Corneilla above, but a different universe entirely! This wine is a slap-you-on-the-back kind of guy from sales that you meet once at a party and then never see again. One philosophical type wondered aloud how the winemaker arrived at the idea of this wine; how something so generic could be the end point of a rational or artistic plan; that this is what a real wine-maker makes only by mistake. (It has to be said that he found virtually no solidarity in this conclusion, showing once more that while most excellent wines have the same virtues, every ordinary wine is crummy for reasons all its own.)

Wine Chateau du Perier 2004
From Medoc, Bordeaux, France
Price $17.95 (LCBO, Ontario)
Alcohol Content 12.0%
Good, rich, identifiably Medoc nose. Well-balanced on the palate with tannins already smooth and sweet. This is a well-managed, well thought-out wine, where the wine-maker went with what the vineyard gave him---which in this case cashes out to relatively light alcohol, low acid, and a wine whose fruit is at its peak 3 years after being put into the bottle. A good name to remember, especially since under the new laws it won't be able to call itself a Cru Bourgeois much longer. Pricey only inasmuch as it's not a fabulous bargain; but you get your money's worth.

Wine La Fleur Leroy 2004
From Bordeaux AC, France
Price $14.80 (Sale price, LCBO, Ontario)
Alcohol Content 13.0%
No, not that Leroy. Immediately after the bottle is opened, it has a meaty nose with traces of game. On the palate, more game, rich fruit, mild tannins, identifiable Bordeaux flavor and a lingering finish. Promising.

15 minutes later, that's all history: fruit has disappeared and the wine has dried out completely, leaving a stemmy, unpleasantly herbaceous finish that had tasters dumping their glasses on the lawn. The nose is still acceptable, (food helped somewhat, though not much) but it's a slippery slope from then on---the great disappearing wine. Later, the purchaser admitted that he had bought it on sale---no wonder.

Wine D'Arenberg The Galvo Garage 2002
From Australia
Price $26.95 (LCBO, Ontario, current release)
Alcohol Content 14.5%
A big nose punches you in yours. But a strange, acid-forward palate reminiscent of grape-skins without tannins (if such a thing is possible) leads some in the peanut gallery to think the wine's been diddled with somewhere in its production. No huge enthusiasm, (a Parker score of 90 notwithstanding) and since there are no Voodoo merchants among the tasters, the question of whether it's a botched bottle or merely one that's still too green goes unanswered. Nobody asks for seconds.

Wine Doudet Naudin Bourgogne Vicomte 2005
From Burgundy, France
Price $19.95 (LCBO, Ontario)
Alcohol Content 13.0%
Nose a mix of nice Burgundy and old socks ('shoe leather' to the polite.) Balanced on the palate with some scratchy acid and tannin---this needs some time in the bottle---but finishes nicely. A tough wine to really appreciate with a dozen others at a tasting, since at this stage of its life it needs to be open a couple of hours to start making a persuasive case for itself. It's also going to be a tough sell for the fans raised on New World Pinots: Too light! Too thin! Too subtle! But for people who appreciate structure and balance and subtlety above all (and who have a basement) this will make an nice, discreet accompaniment to some sweetbreads prepared in time for Bastille Day, 2009.